Who is advising our government on Policy?

A hilarious video made rounds on social media mocking the recent policy decisions of the government. A man clearly elated by something the interviewer asks, bursts into fits of laughter and can barely speak throughout the interview forcing the interviewer to join in. An ingenious Ugandan loosely translates the conversation to fit the current debacle in Uganda. The government made the ill-informed decision to tax mobile money, which has serious implications on financial inclusion, the growth if the sector and on overall government revenues. Bank of Uganda reported a Ugx 672 billion decrease in mobile money transactions in the first two weeks of July 2018 when the mobile money tax came into force.

The banning of airtime scratch cards with the supposed intention of protecting the environment and improving of the security situation in the country is also laughable. Firstly, because airtime scratch cards are the least of Uganda’s environment problems. We have the kaveera, a non-biodegradable bag littering the streets in the entire country and posing a health hazard to many and yet airtime scratch cards, not so much. Kaveera has been banned in Uganda, twice, but enforcement hasn’t been successful to date. The issue of occupation of gazetted wetlands and forest reserves also top the list of environmental issues in this country yet we do not see similar efforts to curb the vice. So if the government is looking for effective ways to save the environment, that is the place to start.

That notwithstanding, there is no correlation between SIM card registration and the banning of scratch cards and low crime. A quick scholarly search on the viability of SIM-card registration to curb crime and terrorism world over registers a negative correlation, incidents in Madrid, Pakistan, London Kenya which have mandatory SIM card registration are a true testament to that fact[1]. Fluidity of crime poses a big challenge to the move and cannot be restrained under a one size fits all policy like the SIM-card registration or banning of airtime scratch cards – rather the situation can be improved by strengthening the security apparatus of the country.

It is important that a government charged with making policy on behalf of the people is cognizant of the intricate details of the demographics. Uganda is a largely rural based economy, over 80 percent of the 40 million population live in rural areas, where telecom services are still scarce. Telecoms still have reservations about setting up shop in rural areas because the costs of serving low income customers outweigh the very limited income streams that could be generated. So, expecting them to move distances to purchase these services and bear the additional costs that come with it, will deter them from using the services.

These developments are undoubtedly progressive and may be useful in the future, for other purposes, however, embarking on these sophisticated measures without putting in place the requisite infrastructure putting the cart before the horse. Ugandan have rebelled, and they will continue to, first because they are not convinced about the importance of these policy measures and secondly because it disrupts their way of life. Mobile money is such a vital service, but it has not yet reached its full potential, taxing it is affecting the growth of the service. SIM cards will not save the environment, humans deliberate action will, start with the kaveera. And no, crime will not reduce because of SIM registration or banning of airtime scratch cards.

[1] Jentzsch N. (2012). Implications of mandatory registration of mobile phone users in Africa. Telecommunications Policy, 36 (8), 608-620. doi: 10.1016/j.telpol.2012.04.002